‘Kelly’ was powerful.
A small office building nestled in the heart of Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley is the place Ad Astra calls home. Inside lies an unassuming 60 seat theatre producing some of the most high quality, interesting work in town. Their production of Matthew Ryan’s ‘Kelly’ was sparse, simple, and cuttingly powerful.
As the audience stepped into the theatre they were swept into a cell, with only a metal chair, and a small wooden bed adorning it. Flanked on either side by rows of chairs, the only other adornment in the space was a large, chained, glowering man with a very impressive beard. Lilting folk songs tugged quietly at the ear while patrons settled themselves in, all of which created a tense atmosphere, perfect for this type of production.
Direction by Mikayla Hosking and Scott West was simple but effective. The use of swathes of colour (reds and blues) to identify memories both painful and sweet was clever, and the show was reasonably well paced. The big moments of hanging silence were balanced well against the furious fights and the sharpness of dialogue.
One note perhaps was that considering the extent of Ned’s injuries (multiple gunshot wounds, a hand totally unusable, and a broken leg that can’t be properly walked on) it may have been worth exploring more static blocking, especially in the opening exchanges with the guard. Allowing Ned to sit as the king of his domain could have played with injuries (he was still an incredibly dangerous man), and the power dynamics between characters in an interesting way.
As the big man himself, Richard Lund dominated as the lead role Ned Kelly. He was commanding and powerful, and never once failed to own the space. Lund showed a huge range through his performance, which was acidicly funny, dark and brooding, desperate, and featured a violent dangerousness that was unnerving to watch. He often switched from throwing jokes and sarcastic asides to rage-fuelled attacks without warning.
One of the greatest aspects of Lund’s performance was how comfortable he was with stillness; how he allowed the action to roll around him. It was in that stillness that he found the greatness in what it meant to be a Kelly. When he did move, he was lightning quick and radiated danger. In a scene where he was remembered charging into a burning house, Lund drew himself up to his full height, standing on two feet for the first time in the play, he was a titan, a hero, and it was obvious that people would have followed him to hell and back if he had asked. The next moment, as the scene came back to the present, he curled over his wounds and it was heartbreaking to witness. A king cowed.
With a calm, but radiant energy, Patrick Shearer brought Dan Kelly to life. In a tiny space, he shone as the deeply conflicted younger brother of Ned. Supposedly dead, but masquerading as a priest, Shearer’s portrayal had a quiet forcefulness about him that kept the audience on his side for almost the entire play. There was an extraordinarily watchable quality about Shearer’s performance that even when he as standing and listening, he constantly drew the eyes of the audience.
The power of Shearer’s character was in its dynamic internal battle that was faced throughout the story – an all at once struggle, which sought to reject his name and legacy, sought absolution from his brother, yet defied these desires when they were delivered. Shearer engaged in this dichotomy with relish and swung between motivations and wants effortlessly. His final desperate pleas rang out through the small space in a way that really underscored Dan’s loss of identity and self. The crash of the cell door accentuated the end of the Kelly Gang and an uncertain new beginning.
Colin Smith played multiple roles throughout the production – from a vicious prison guard to colleagues. Smith’s guard sparred often with Lund’s Kelly, violently, but often teasingly. The two men managed a disdain for one another that had an oddly charming camaraderie to it and grounded the unbelievable action that swirled around them. Full credit must go to the creative team for costuming Smith so that he could play a variety of characters with simple changes. Every time he stepped into the space, the role he was playing was instantly recognisable. A testament both to costume designers and Smith’s prowess.
‘Kelly’ was a dark glimpse into a version of our history that might have been. A fanciful, ruinous examination of the fall of two legends. It was a dive into a deep pool full of powerful titans who clashed together, and when the audience left the cell it felt like emerging from underwater, having been under for too long. Suddenly it was possible to breathe again.
‘Kelly’ will be in his cell until Saturday, 2 March 2019. Tickets are available at http://adastracreativity.com.